young adult


wicked saintsWicked Saints, by Emily A. Duncan
Wednesday Books, April 2019

It’s not Emily Duncan’s fault that hers is at least the third book this year that I’ve read with the same general premise and structure: a world torn apart, warring factions – magic vs non magic or different systems of magic, a boy, a girl, one or both of whom is powerful, one from each side, alternating points of view. To Duncan’s credit, hers is by far the best I’ve read, even as I wish for slightly less of a “cooky cutter” narrative.

At first, I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. There was the afore-mentioned basic similarity to a lot of other books. It also had a bit of a “Final Fantasy” feel to the magic system (mages carrying round spell books, ripping out pages to cast them). But I was won over by the characters; not just the main characters (and I commend a wise decision by the author in terms of how much of themselves she allows us to know), but the relationships between them and others. I don’t want to say too much more, because spoilers. But the plot was exciting; although there’s a certain amount of blood and thunder, the violence didn’t feel gratuitous, and there’s a really interesting moral ambiguity that feels earned rather than arbitrary. Towards the end, I couldn’t put it down, and I’m already looking forward to the next book in the series.

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Crown of Feathers, by Nicki Pau Preto
Simon Pulse, 2019

For readers of Anne McCaffrey, Mercedes Lackey, and Tamora Pierce, this exciting YA fantasy hits all the right buttons. Sentient bonded animals! Evil empire! Rebel forces in hiding! Girl dresses up as boy in order to join group of Phoenix Riders!

The world has been ripped apart by a terrible war between two warrior queens. Now, the Phoenix Riders are in hiding, and two sisters, Veronyka and Val, barely survive as refugees. Val is domineering and overly controlling, and Veronyka must learn to be self-sufficient if she is to follow her dream of joining the Riders.

Preto takes some rather common tropes of YA fantasy and turns them into a compelling, if somewhat predictable, story, although the last few chapters set up what could be a very intriguing sequel. The world-building is impressive, but a bit heavy-handed; the author needs to learn to integrate background information rather more smoothly. I found the “info-dumping” pushed me out of the story rather than moved it along. Overall, though, I would recommend it to a younger YA audience and will look forward to the sequel.

I was provided a copy of this book by NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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The Cold is in Her Bones by Peternelle van Arsdale

Margaret K. McElderry Books 2019

This is a beautifully written and absorbing mythopoeic fantasy that explores the damage that can be caused by “othering.” It is set in a small forest community – and the claustrophobic atmosphere of this locale adds to the overall affect of the book – where girls and young women are always at risk of being possessed by the spirit of a woman who was ostracized because of her strangeness. Milla lives with her parents and her brother on a small farm. Both her parents seem to distrust her, and she longs to be loved. When a girl moves in to a neighbouring farm, she gains her first real friend apart from her brother, and when both Milla’s brother and her new friend are threatened by the “demon,” Milla risks everything to save them.

van Arsdale conveys Milla’s feeling of isolation and her longing to belong very well. I think what I appreciated most about this story was the portrayal of how lack of affection can be a form of abuse. The coldness of Milla’s father, in particular, is painful. Milla is a strong character, brave and true to her friend and brother without the author resorting to cliches of the feisty heroine, and I also liked that there was no need for the romance tropes of much YA fiction. This is in some ways a disturbing little book, but overall a very effective one.

I was provided an ARC of this novel by NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

The Lie Tree
Frances Hardinge
Amulet Books, 2016

26118377I was provided a copy of this novel by NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Lie Tree was recently awarded the prestigious Costa Prize, not just in its own category of children’s book but as the overall “book of the year,” only the second time a children’s book has won since Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass. I was aware of the acclaim with which this novel has been received, and I’ve been immensely impressed with Hardinge’s previous work, so I had high expectations. They were not disappointed. This is a brilliant and thoroughly enjoyable novel.

Faith Sunderland arrives with her family on the island of Vane, a fictional Channel island off the south coast of Britain. Her father, an amateur archeologist of some repute, has been invited to join a dig on the island, but Faith discovers that he is running away from a scandal, accused of falsifying historical evidence. Along with the family, a snake, many notes and papers, the Reverend Sunderland brings a cutting from a mysterious plant, which, it turns out, feeds on lies but provides visions and secret knowledge to those who eat its fruit. Soon, the family has to deal with not just suspicious islanders and the scandal, but with the Reverend Sunderland’s death under mysterious circumstances, apparently suicide. Faith is convinced it is a murder, and she has to feed the tree with lies of her own in order to uncover the truth.

This is probably the darkest of Hardinge’s novels so far. It lacks the wild exuberance of the stories of Mosca and her goose, or the fantasy of such as Gullstruck Island. It is at once a murder mystery, a Gothic, a morality tale and a coming of age story. I see it classified as a historical novel, but I think to some extent that’s a misnomer, as it relies not on historical events so much as a historical zeitgeist – the moment in time when Darwin’s theories of evolution are having their impact and when society is on the cusp of change. The characters are to a great extent who they are, forced into the roles they exist in, because of the time in which they live.

We may at first find many of the characters unattractive, but this is to a large part because we see them through Faith’s eyes, and our view of them expands as hers does. I found Faith a completely sympathetic character: I admired her gumption, her guts, her courage, her ability ultimately to move beyond her own beliefs and biases. She is self-aware, and becomes more so as the novel progresses. I loved the streak of feminism that ran quietly through the novel: the way that Faith realizes she herself had been ignoring women as “the devoted wife” or “the housekeeper” and is able to change her views not only of her own potential role but also of her mother and other women around her (for example, there’s a delightful hint of a “special friendship” between two women that emerges towards the end of the novel).

Philosophically, there’s a lot going on. It’s a commentary on – yes – faith, on the science/superstition binary that is not as clear cut as might be assumed, on human nature, on greed, on how easy it is to make people believe what you want them to believe.

It’s a great book – I want to read it again and talk about it more and think about it more. It is complex and clever and richly deserves the acclaim it has received so far.

A Song For Ella Grey
David Almond
Delacourt Press, 2015
ISBN 0553533592

24836168Magnificent. This is an extraordinary piece of writing: haunting, beautiful, achingly sad but completely unsentimental. Watch out, because I’m going to be pushing this novel to everyone I know now. It’s hard in a way, having read what I suspect will be the best book I read in 2016 in the first week of January.

I read it in one almost completely uninterrupted sublime gulp. You can read it quickly, because you get swept away by the power and rhythmic force of the language, but you will also want to go back and reread, re-experience some of those lyrical tour-de-forces of writing. The tone and timbre captures the voice of the English north without ever falling into caricature or making the reader trip. If I say it is “poetic,” you will think “flowery,” but it is not: it is achingly pure, precise, not a single word out of place.

The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice has been inspiring poets, artists and musicians for centuries, millennia. Somehow, Almond makes it new, infuses the power of the ancient myth into a contemporary world. Nor does he shrink from the violence of parts of the story, but somehow without ever mis-stepping, crossing the line into banality or excess. One thing I like is the ordinariness of the young characters. These are not disaffected or damaged youth. This is not a “problem” novel about teenage pregnancy or drug addiction. These are intelligent, self-consciously artsy, slightly bohemian young people on the cusp of adulthood, with all their restlessness and questioning and yearning, insecurity and brashness. What happens when you expose such young characters to love and beauty and art in their most ideal forms, reified in Orpheus? That it is a tragedy is not a spoiler if you know the story; what is unexpected is the joy that underlies the grief. But that is the power of the myth and of this novel.

It is a song. It is a masterpiece.

These are the books I read while on my European Vacation.

Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

I initially decided to read this because I’m teaching a course in Creative Non-Fiction come September, and obviously had heard about it and wondered if it would be suitable either to recommend to students or even to teach. Also the first part of it is set in Italy, so it appealed for that reason.

It relates the experiences and discoveries of a young-ish woman, recovering from a marriage break-up and near nervous breakdown, who decides to explore physical pleasure (eating) in Italy, spiritual enlightenment (praying) in an Ashram in India, and some kind of balance between the two in Bali. I found it enjoyable, if a little uneven. It’s impossible to avoid feeling that it’s incredibly self-absorbed and self-indulgent, that she needs to stop thinking about herself all the time and just get on with the job of living, and to be envious that she managed to get paid to lounge about eating, praying, and having sex and then writing about it, however engagingly (and where do I apply for a similar assignment?).

It is an easy read, perfect for travelling, as it’s written in short, two or three page bites rather than extended essays. Of the three sections, disappointingly I found the Italian bit the weakest and the least interesting – too much emotional angst and not enough about Italy or eating. The whole book is All About Her, which I suppose is only to be expected; the interest, I suppose, lies in reading about the experiences of someone not all that unlike oneself rather than finding any great insights about Life.

Georgette Heyer, Sylvester

Heyer is also perfect vacation reading, light as air, amusing and frothy. This, however, was far from the best of her books that I’ve ever read. I found the female protagonist rather tiresome rather than sympathetic, and the predictable romantic entanglement was mechanical rather than engaging or believable.

Margaret Drabble, The Seven Sisters

This was on the bookshelf on my Venice apartment, obviously left by a previous tenant. I took it with me (and donated it to my hotel in Bath), donating the two books above to the flat collection, so a fair exchange. Possibly the previous reader had chosen it because it in part involves a trip to Italy, but it has more to offer than vicarious travel pleasure.

The novel is written in the form of a diary of sorts in the voice of a middle-aged woman who is starting a new life in London after the break up of her marriage. She has led a dull, predictable life of marriage and children, and now finds herself exploring her own interests and identity away from her husband and suburban life-style. She takes an evening course, reading Vergil’s Aeneid in Latin, and an unexpected financial windfall makes her decide to arrange a trip to North Africa and Italy with her teacher, one of her classmates and a couple of longtime friends, to find places mentioned in the epic.

One of the pleasures for me in reading this novel was some identification with the “coming-of-middle-age” emotional arc. The narrative voice is distinctive and sympathetic, and the novel’s exploration of ideas about narrative and identity is intriguing. I found one or two of the deliberate metafictive “tricks” somewhat tiresome, however; to be honest, I couldn’t really see the point of a deliberate destabilization two-thirds of the way through, and it seemed to be something “authorly” rather than anything that developed naturally from the character of the narrator. It’s one that I’d like to discuss with someone else who has read it, though, just to explore some of the ideas and devices in it.

Sarah Moss, Cold Earth

And I’d LOVE to talk to someone about this one! Particularly the ending, which I can’t say anything about because of potential spoilage, except to say that I really, really want to know what others thought about it.

This novel involves a group of young academics, mostly archaeologists, in Greenland to do research on a Viking settlement, with the intention to discover what caused it to disappear. While they are there, news reaches them of a pandemic in the “real” world, and eventually communication breaks off and they are stranded.

It is written in the form of letters or journals from the various members of the dig. The first, last, and most interesting voice is Nina’s – she is the only non-archaeologist in the group, seems to have signed up more or less on a whim and brought because the group’s leader has a crush on her. She appears to be being haunted by the ghosts of the dead Vikings, and gradually her fears, and possibly her experiences, are passed on to the other members of the group.

The novel is ambitious in its ideas, but falls short in the execution of them. The parallel plot about the pandemic is intriguing. Moss creates real tension and atmosphere in the early build-up of the ghost story element. Apart from Nina’s, I didn’t find any of the voices particularly distinctive, and although each of the characters had some aspect that was interesting (one appears to be a closet lesbian, another is in mourning for a dead partner, another is a devout Christian who finds his certainty unsettled), they are never developed enough. There is enough here to fill out a book twice as long, and I felt that everything was rushed, particularly towards the end. And the ending … well. As I said, I’d very much like to hear what someone else thought about it, but discussion needs to be protected from spoilers.

Janice Hardy, The Pain Merchants

I got this free at the DWJ conference, as an ARC, and read it from start to finish on the train from Penzance to London. I’m ashamed to admit that I left it on the Heathrow Express because of luggage weight issues – I hope someone found it who will read it and enjoy it!

The setting is a world in which Healers take pain away from people and deposit it in a mineral called pynvium, where it can be stored, discharged, or used as a weapon. Nya has the powers of a Healer, but thinks she can’t heal because she can’t discharge the pain into pynvium; she can, however, transfer the pain to another person, a skill that is forbidden and which she thinks is useless. Of course, it turns out to be more useful than she had suspected. The pleasures here are not from the pretty predictable “useless person saves the day” plot arc, but from the very interesting world, revealed through showing, not telling, and very interesting complexity of politics. The characters are well-drawn and the writing is good. The voice is humorous without being tiresomely anachronistic. I’ll look forward to reading the inevitable sequel (once again I bemoan the fact that no one these days writes stand-alone fantasy novels).